News Feature | October 29, 2013

China's Plan To Cleanup Air May Hurt Water Supply

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

China's plans for reducing air pollution may inadvertently take a toll on the water supply.

China has crafted a sweeping plan to reduce coal use. The goal is to cut coal's role in energy output from 67 percent in 2012 to 65 percent in 2017, Bloomberg Businessweek said.

One of the strategies for achieving that goal is the creation of synthetic natural gas (SNG) plants.  China has approved construction of a whole new fleet of these operations, which convert coal to gas. But the plants may “pose a threat to water supplies in arid regions," Bloomberg reported.

That's because SNG plants use a highly water-intensive process, researchers said.

"One cubic meter of SNG requires 6 to 10 liters (1.58-2.6 gallons) of freshwater to produce. So in an attempt to control urban air pollution in the east, China might jeopardize its water supplies elsewhere," according to a paper by analysts at the World Resources Institute (WRI). 

Making matters worse, most of the SNG plants are slated for China's “water-stressed” regions, the researchers said. That includes arid regions such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.

The plants "will consume a total of 500 to 700 million cubic meters of freshwater annually at full operating capacity," which is nearly 20 percent of the area's total industrial water supply, the report said.

The result will be more water shortages, according to WRI analysts. 

China's SNG effort has attracted skepticism for other reasons, as well. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change said it would create additional water pollution.

Scientific American reported that the new plants "would emit seven times as much greenhouse gases as conventional natural gas plants."